Documents: Feature Article:

Bye-Bye Bone Meal?
by Carla Allen
by Carla Allen

Greetings from Nova Scotia!

Carla Allen has been gardening for the past 25 years, co-owned a nursery in southwestern Nova Scotia for 16 years.

Carla has an extensive image library and nurtures a network of horticulture in the region. She was the first president of the Yarmouth Garden Club.

April 1, 2001

Bone meal is a hot topic amongst gardeners lately, due in part to articles written by Art Drysdale. Drysdale is a well-known horticultural writer and radio host, who is never afraid to voice his opinion. In his `Last Word' commentary in a recent issue of Plant & Garden he wrote against the use of bone meal as a fertilizer for plants. This week, one of the best sites on the Net for Canadian gardeners, featured another story by Drysdale. In this particular article he presents the possibility that a number of people in Britain who contracted and died from Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human form of mad cow disease, "could have done so by working in soil contaminated with the disease, possibly even through the use of bone meal, made from animals that were unknowingly infected." He again recommended that people follow his four decade old advice - to "skip the bone meal" because modern day processing techniques result in a product that is "not really a complete fertilizer because virtually all of the nitrogen is steamed out for other uses." For fertilizing spring blooming bulbs he said it is "far better to use Bulb Booster." I've used bone meal, recommended it for years, and have been very happy with the results. With me, Drysdale's radical writing accomplished exactly what he wanted, as mentioned on his website ( "I will have caused you to think about what I believe to be an important issue." Drysdale mentioned that the leading producer of bone meal in Canada is the Nu-Gro Corporation, based in Brantford, Ont. Don Gayford, VP for Consumer Products for the company, informed me that the bone meal they sell is both produced in Canada and imported from the United States, (a country I hardly think would find it necessary to bring in bones from Europe.) They sell Canagro (2-14-0 ) and Nature's Garden (2-11-0) bone meal products. All of their bone meal is steamed. 
Bone meal is not, and never has been, a "complete" fertilizer. It may not contain as much "goodness" as in years past because of different processing techniques, but in my opinion is still a great source of phosphorus, the element for which it is most often used. Phosphorus promotes flowering and root development. Bulb Booster (also sold by Nu-Gro) has a 9-9-6 composition. That means 9% of the total volume is nitrogen, 9% is phosphorus and 6% is potassium. As you can see, there's only 7% difference in the nitrogen composition. Excess nitrogen can produce soft growth susceptible to disease. 
Bulb Booster's slow-release nitrogen is delivered via polymer-coated urea. The phosphate is ammoniated and there is polymer-coated potassium chloride. Bone meal acts as a more environmentally friendly fertilizer. It's also a non-burning product so it can be in direct contact with roots or bulbs. Nu-Gro Marketing Manager Jay Pollack assures gardeners that they "are 100% confident that our bone meal is safe and can be used with confidence." 
According to Drysdale, some bone meal produced in Western Canada is chipped and microwaved rather than steamed. Gayford confirmed that some other bone meal producers use this process and added that nutrients are not as quickly accessible to plants in this form and that microwaving is not as effective as steaming for disease control. 
I thought it would be interesting to contact an organic organization to see how they are handling the bone meal controversy. Paul Muto, an Organic Inspector for Nova Scotia Organic Growers told me bone meal and blood meal are not "permitted inputs" for organic certification. Other fertilizers belonging to the prohibited list include super-phosphate and raw manure. Bans pertaining to some animal products are due in part to the unknown diet of the livestock, but also because of the danger of pathogens like e-coli (in raw manure). Muto surmised that the bone meal and blood meal ban was likely connected to current diseases in Europe. He also proposed that there could be a lucrative market in future for bone meal and blood meal from certified organic animals. Organic certification is strictly controlled to maintain organic integrity. 
That said, you're probably still wondering if it's safe to use bone meal. Kay Harris-Allum, and other employees at Halifax Seed, hope commentaries by Drysdale don't "terrorize people." They have several truckloads of pelletized bone meal to sell this spring. "You're not ingesting it," said Harris-Allum, who ridiculed the idea that bone meal could be dangerous. "Bone meal is one of the organic fertilizers being encouraged by the city of Halifax at present," she added. 
Am I going to continue to use bone meal? Yes, although in this case I must admit I'm happy about living on the East Coast, where steamed, pelletized bone meal is by far the most popular form sold. There's less chance of inhaling it accidentally.... just to be on the safe side. I figure your chances of catching any diseases are about as likely as a plane crash or being struck by lightening. Let's hope I'm right.

Carla now has her own website ... she invites you to visit it at


Previous Feature Articles
  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row